Welcome to Week 2
In this, the second instalment of 40 stories in 40 weeks, we take a look back to the early days of Haven; Home, Safe in this extract from Sarah Harris and Don Baker’s history, to be published later this year.
A Labor of Ladies
Between the tent, the children, the little gas stove and the placard-waving students, the nature strip outside Daryl McClure’s White Hills home was crowded even before the newspaper journalists and TV crews arrived.
Emboldened by her supporters, the young mother with a toddler on her hip and another child beside her hopping theatrically from foot-to-foot, knocked on the door. “Please, can I come in,” she called to an unseen resident. “I have nowhere to live and my little boy needs to use the toilet.” The door of the then-Bendigo MP’s home remained firmly shut. There might not even have been anyone home, but it served as a powerful metaphor – young family locked out in the cold.
The camera crews loved it. “It was pretty cheeky,” Gwen Kerr recalls with a laugh. “But you know it didn’t take them long to find us a place after that. We shamed them into it.”
Gwen was fairly typical of Bendigo Urban Emergency Accommodation Resource Centre (BUEARC) clients in those days. She’d arrived in Bendigo with four children aged from 13 to six months in tow just before Christmas 1981 to be closer to her then-husband, who was serving time in Bendigo Gaol on two counts of armed robbery.
“I had a friend here and I stayed with her for a couple of weeks and that’s when I started to think, I can’t go back to Melbourne. So I went to BUEARC and asked if they could help me.” Gwen and the children were swiftly installed in the house in Adams Road, Quarry Hill – a five-bedroom property owned by the Housing Ministry and administered by BUEARC. They settled in, sharing the house with another woman and her two children, and Gwen felt that for the first time things were going right for the family. “I really loved Bendigo and so did the kids,” she recalls. “They had me on the priority list for permanent housing, everything looked pretty sorted. Then my husband and another bloke escaped from prison.”
Eventually, on his recapture, Gwen’s husband was returned to jail in Melbourne and the Housing Commission expected Gwen and her children to follow. “I was backwards and forwards to Melbourne, but I think I knew then there was no way I was going back to him once he got out.
“After being on my own with the kids I had a lot more confidence. I knew that if my children were to have a better life I had to break this destructive cycle.” Gwen told BUEARC’s housing officer, Elaine McNamara, she wasn’t budging out of Bendigo.
“The Housing Commission wanted me to go back to high-rise flats,” she recalls. “They basically said, ‘We won’t house you here now because he is back there’.
“That’s when Elaine had the brainwave of the nature-strip housing demo.
I thought it would just be me and the kids and I made them little signs. One said, ‘High Rise, No Life’ and another, ‘I Don’t Want to be a High-Rise Prisoner.’ Then all these uni students turned up and they had all these placards too. To this day I have no idea where they came from. Elaine had rounded them up somehow.”
The demonstration lasted a day and within 24 hours Gwen had a permanent Commission house in Bendigo. Officially BUEARC had nothing whatsoever to do with the protest. Elaine had strong affiliations with the Labor Party and it wouldn’t do to make staking out the home of the long-standing Liberal MLA look like a partisan action. She had told Gwen: “If anyone asks I know nothing. You did this all yourself.”
But BUEARC’s links with the Labor Party were long-standing. Originally known as the Bendigo Emergency Accommodation Group, the association was actually established by a group of Labor ladies including Bea Wallace, Gaye Hudson and Deb Laidlaw. Under the guidance of Annie Galvin, whose husband Bill was the local MP and Deputy Labor Party leader, the group prepared a submission which led to it becoming the first emergency housing program in Victoria funded by the State Government.
Even before 1978 – when BUEARC was officially incorporated – Bendigo was battling. The psychedelic ’70s had turned sober as, one after another, all the city’s abattoirs, most of its meatworks and several large food processors shut their doors. In just two short years almost 700 men were thrown out of work, the effect rippling throughout the community as Bendigo’s unemployment rate grew to the fourth highest in the state.
It was a period of profound social change. The introduction of no-fault divorce, the entry of women into the workplace, the closing of Dickensian institutions like orphanages and mental hospitals, and the increasing mobility of the population would liberate many. But it also exposed gaps in the public welfare network.
Join us next week for our third instalment of 40 Stories in 40 Weeks, as we remember and celebrate 40 years of Haven; Home, Safe.